How does one live in our world, so often full of pain, without God and the hope He gives? Hope allows us to see grace present in our everyday, ordinary situations and in our suffering as well. “It is God’s desire from the beginning that we be full of grace, i.e. full of God and therefore wondrous (Dreyer 171).” It would therefore follow, then, that we are to be filled with grace and that is what will propel us forward toward God.
During some of our class discussions on grace a few people noted that prior to Vatican II there was this notion of getting grace only through the institutional Church and from its ordained ministers. Also there were rules about grace: you could store grace up or lose it by committing a bad act. And, finally, God kept a record of how much He meted out to you. There was the chance that you could not have enough grace to get into heaven. I do not have those ideas as part of my understanding of grace at all. I do not know if I had them once and discarded them or if they were simply not a part of what I believed once I could start to think about God on my own, apart from what I was taught in school.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that there are many forms of grace: sanctifying or deifying (#1999), sacramental, and special graces known as charisms (#2003). Within sanctifying grace is “Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call and actual grace which refers to God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification” (CCC #2000). Sacramental graces are those which we receive when one of the Church’s seven sacraments are conferred upon us. The grace is given, but it still requires acceptance on our part. Special graces are the gifts or charisms given to people to use to build up the body of Christ. Some examples are teaching and healing.
The Church teaches us that grace is a gift from God and that we can do nothing to earn it. Grace is “the free relation of the Absolute communicating himself” (Rahner 588). When grace is viewed as God’s communicating with us we see that the above definitions of grace, though more open-ended than pre Vatican II ideas, still are trying to define grace and by defining it therefore limiting grace. To put limits on grace puts limits on God and that is not possible. By God’s communicating with us and giving us grace “he makes man share in the very nature of God” (Rahner 588).
The idea that grace is God’s self communication and that it allows us share in his nature is what propels me forward every day. Prior to this course, I had heard of Rahner but never read any of his work. As I read a few of his articles and his concepts in our texts, I was struck by how his understanding of grace resonated with me and my own experiences. It was a moment of the un-thematic becoming thematic.
Grace comes to us not only through the sacraments but also through prayer and other’s responses to events in our lives. Grace is a transforming power if it is accepted; “the actual and proximate ability to accept is itself a supremely free grace (Rahner 589). I often compare grace to strength, a power that enables you do and say things you may not want to do based on exterior motives but know interiorly it is the correct path to take. I am taken aback when people think I have a greater ability to be more patient or less judgmental than them. I try to explain that it truly has little to do with me, but rather my acceptance of God’s grace. The statement that “grace is …impossible to merit by man’s own powers, so that man can neither positively prepare himself for it nor obtain it by prayer” (Rahner 589) does not hold true for me. While I agree that we do not merit grace, I do not agree that we cannot prepare for it. Preparing for it is similar to hoping, and all of us need to have hope. If we do not obtain grace by prayer, then we cannot pray for grace; however, we can pray for the acceptance of grace when it is offered. Our act of praying for grace is not a trade of Hail Mary’s for grace, but rather to soften our hearts and open our minds to the grace all around us.
This takes us back to the point that grace cannot be held only in the institutional Church, but is all around us. Grace does not flow in a direct line from God to me as an individual and stop. That would be a waste of grace. Through the grace we receive at Baptism we are ontologically changed to be radically configured to Christ and are now to act on our call as prophet, priest, and king. We are constantly receiving grace and it calls us to be changed, to be more radically configured towards Christ, to be more Christ-like and to share our grace with others as God does. The gift of God’s grace “reaches in Jesus Christ its eschatological, irreversible culmination towards which it tended from the start and throughout, and which determined and formed the basis of its whole course from the beginning” (Rahner 596). To call ourselves Christian, we need to act on grace.
Grace is an expression of our Trinitarian faith, “God moves toward us so that we may move toward each other and thereby toward God (Ludwig 181). If grace is given to us as an expression of love, each time we act in love, we are living a grace-filled life and sharing the graces we have been given with others. Once grace is received it cannot be kept to oneself, for that would be the absolute denial of Trinitarian faith. The Trinity is God’s love overflowing into the Son and Spirit and so we must share grace given to us in response to God’s overflowing love for us. Our salvation is hoped for within the fullness of all the graces we receive.